means “rule by the people,” but today that seems an increasingly distant ideal.
We live in a diverse country of 310 million people with a government
responsible for a huge range of domestic and foreign concerns. Even full-time
professionals have trouble keeping track of what’s going on. In such a
situation, how can ordinary people exercise much control over public affairs?
democracy can’t really be rule by the people, at least not under present
conditions, what is it? Nobody seems to know, and if someone does no one else
agrees with him. With that problem in mind, Chilton Williamson has written a
book that explores at length the ambiguities, contradictions, and doubtful
prospects of whatever it is that we call democracy.
After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure
of Democracy (ISI, 2012) is extraordinarily wide-ranging. It starts
with a long bicycle tour of France by a young British historian, which leads to
a discussion of whether the centralized and officially egalitarian France of
today is freer or more democratic than the loosely and locally organized France
that existed before the Revolution. The author then spends the rest of the book
exploring the vicissitudes of the democratic cause, the movements,
institutions, and meanings associated with it, and current conditions that make
its future success doubtful.
In the course
of his explorations Williamson touches on a huge variety of thinkers who have held
quite divergent views on the nature, value, and prospects of popular rule. He
focuses especially on Alexis de Tocqueville, the great prophet and analyst of
democracy in America. Tocqueville was a French nobleman who was truly at home
only with other aristocrats. He nonetheless saw America as a sign of the
inevitable triumph of democracy throughout the West, and was public-spirited
and cosmopolitan enough to recognize that the new order would have certain
was concerned to secure the advantages of democracy and minimize its dangers,
but his confidence in its approaching triumph was not matched by confidence it
would endure. His comments are sobering reading today, since America no longer
has the qualities that he thought made for democracy, minimizing its defects.
Our country is no longer isolated, uncrowded, or decentralized, and we no
longer have a religious consensus or a coherent culture based on that of
England. We have the opposite of all those things, and are plagued as well by
the politically-correct self-censorship, and the growing bureaucratic
responsibility for the well-being of an increasingly self-centered people, that
Tocqueville saw as dangers even in the 1830s.
notes, Tocqueville’s intelligence and insight did not bring him influence, and
democracy and Western society have gone their way without reference to his
warnings. The outcome has been a setting increasingly unfriendly to democracy.
People have become more interested in comfort and security than self-rule, and
a technological and globalized world seems too complicatedand problems such as
terrorism, environmental degradation, and economic instability too pressing,
far-reaching, and resistant to solutionfor popular rule to appear workable. Under
such conditions Russia and China can seem better symbols of things to come than
the New England town meetings that so much struck Tocqueville when he visited.
But what do
we make of such concerns and the situation to which they relate? The future is
hard to unriddle, and one can argue about whether Williamson is overly
pessimistic, but the problems he points to are real. Recent attacks on the
freedom of the Church have brought home to us certain difficulties of our
situation as Catholics and citizens, and this book helps fill in the picture by
drawing attention to problems of popular rule in general.
concern should be to know what we are talking about when we speak of democracy.
As an immediate practical matter, it has mostly meant reducing the importance
of various traditional distinctions, and extending the role of popular
elections based on an ever-widening franchise. As such, it has had important
benefits. Traditional distinctions can violate justice, and popular election of
officials means that government has to please the people to some degree. The
requirement doesn’t guarantee honesty or good government, but it’s still an
important point given the human tendency toward self-seeking and the bad
conduct of many non-democratic governments.
people don’t view democracy as merely a practical expedientin Churchill’s
words, as “the worst form of government except all those other forms.” If that
were their view they wouldn’t treat democracy as so transcendently important.
Instead, it has become an overarching social outlook with its own standard of
the just and good that trumps all other standards. It is thus a fundamental
moral outlook, something Williamson calls a religion.
outlook or religion the will of the people is the basis of government and
equality is the standard of justice. The will of the people rules, not only in
fact but by fundamental right, subject only to limitations based on equality
and the needs of the system. As time has passed, those limitations have
developed and become increasingly important. Where pure popular democracy would
say that the majority can do what it likes, liberal democracy insists on proper
procedures and free discussion, and advanced liberal democracy requires equal
consideration for the concerns of minorities.
limitations seem plausible, but they have been interpreted ever more broadly,
and the result has been an ever narrower role for the popular will on basic
issues. Thus, where popular democracy would feel free to redefine marriage to
include the union of two men or two women if that’s what people want, advanced
liberal democracy increasingly feels called upon to redefine it as a matter of
equal justice regardless of whether people like it or not. The distinction
between man and woman is a traditional distinction, and democracy doesn’t like
traditional distinctions, so it’s thought that keeping things as they are would
deny democratic principle.
version of democracy we look at, it’s clear that when treated as an overarching
philosophy or religion it does away with higher law in favor of human will as
the supreme standard. That’s why Williamson and others have called it
inherently anti-traditional and essentially atheistic. Hence what some people
consider Catholic waffling about democracy. People often say that the Church
used to be against democracy but now favors it, except for a few issues like
abortion and internal Church governance. In fact, the attitude has been more
consistent and complex.
has distinguished democracy as moderation of social inequalities and promotion
of popular participation in government from democracy as the unconditional
supremacy of equality and the people’s will. Within reason, the Church is
favorable to the former aspects of democracy. Bl. John Paul II tells
us that the Church “values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the
participation of citizens.” His comments echo Aquinas, who told us long
ago that “all should take some share in the government: for this form of
constitution ensures peace among the people, commends itself to all, and is
has also taken a moderate view of human distinctions, emphasizing brotherhood
and thus basic equality but recognizing rightful differences. The latter can
include traditional distinctions: an example is provided by the distinction
between the sexes, which the Church considers natural and intended by God. As
Bl. John Paul II noted,
“women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive.”
On the other
hand, the Church rejects democracy as a supreme standard, telling us that the basis
of government is not the popular will but God and human nature, and its purpose
is not equality and popular rule but the common good. Bl. John Paul II
summarized the Catholic view when he
said that democracy is “a ‘system’ and as such is a means and not an end.
Its ‘moral’ value is not automatic, but depends on conformity to the moral
The conclusion to draw, it seems, is that the
relation between democracy and Catholicism is complex. The troubles of
democracy are troubles for Catholics to the extent they threaten good
government and the spirit of mutual respect on which we rely in a non-Catholic
world. To the extent they demonstrate problems with a false political religion,
however, they provide an occasion to suggest a standard for government higher
than human will. Like all crises, the crisis of democracy that Williamson sees
is an opportunity and challenge as well as a danger.